Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Listen to yourself when you are thinking or talking about your health, especially when you catch yourself getting in your own way with comments like:
“This diet is ridiculous. Nobody should have to live this way.”
“I’m taking the medicine. Isn't that enough?”
“I am fine. I don't need to see a doctor.”
Where is that voice coming from? Does it remind you of someone from your past? Maybe one of your parents? Think back to when you were growing up. How did your parents manage their health? How did they manage the health of their children?
I came from one of those homes where mom went to the doctor when she needed to, but dad didn’t. Fortunately for me, mom was in charge of family health decisions. When it came time to follow the doctor’s orders, let’s just say that my role models for being compliant weren't always all that compliant.
Maybe you came from a home where parents were health conscious, who took care of their own health, visited the doctor as needed, and made sure their children did the same. On the other hand, you might have come from a home with parents who didn't take very good care of themselves, didn't watch what they ate, and didn't get medical care unless they were in an emergency situation. Lack of financial resources could have played a role here as well. You might have also picked up the message that mothers are supposed to put their children first, and not pay attention to their own health-related needs, or that men don't need to go to the doctor.
And then, as your parents have grown older, you might also be learning—for better or for worse—how our health habits have a way of catching up with us over time.
When we face life events, like being diagnosed and learning to live with a chronic condition, we are often reminded of what we learned from our parents. This can be a blessing when we recognize ways in which our parents prepared us for the future but we may also see our parents reflected in ways that may not be so helpful, along with some attitudes and habits that you learned and now need to unlearn.
So what can you do?
Old parental messages about health can have a way of sneaking into your self-talk. It might be helpful to make a list of the messages that often bounce around in your mind when you think about your health. Messages like: “I’ll wait to see if this gets any worse,” or “Life is short. I'll eat what I want.” Is that you or is that your parents talking?
Decide what to hang onto and what has to go
Sure, you probably learned a lot of useful health habits from your parents. On the other hand, some of what you observed or learned doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s time to let go of habits that don't serve you well. Look at it this way: ignoring your own health isn't the way to honor your parents.
Remember that times are changing
And so is medical science. What was good enough for mom and dad was all that was available to them and has most likely been updated. You've got a lot more health options and a lot more reason to take an active role in your health care.
Take a step back
When you find yourself having one of those moments when it feels more important to do things your way than your doctor’s way, this might be a time when you're channeling Mom or Dad. Mentally thank them for their opinion but remind yourself that father (or mother) didn’t always know best.
Choose to live your life your way
I've had a few bad habits to unlearn over the years starting with following doctor’s orders. I certainly know who I learned that from. But what I also know is that my life is my own to life, and that starts with making good health choices.